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Peacehaven Beyond the Rural Idyll

History Notes By Marion Bance

Peacehaven is the only town in the United Kingdom named after “peace”, or so I believe. What is more certain is that both the creation of the town and its name have close links with the First World War. But look beyond the lofty ideals of ‘homes fit for heroes’ and the ‘rural idyll’ and there is a darker story involving duplicity, legal shenanigans, and a fundraising scam. And it all centres around a man called Charles Neville.

Neville came from a family of showmen and was born in County Durham in 1881. He was an enterprising character who, during his lifetime, was involved in lots of different schemes in and around our area, including in Saltdean and Rottingdean. As a young man he spent some time in Canada and Australia learning how to deal in land and gold. One source says that in the early part of the 20th century, Neville made a fortune by buying resource-rich land at dirt-cheap prices from the indigenous people of New Guinea and selling it, at a substantial profit, to Australian speculators.

In 1912 Charles returned to England and started looking for new business opportunities. By the site of a Bronze-age burial mound in the Parish of Piddinghoe, he found what he was looking for - an expanse of agricultural downland, an ideal location for a housing estate. It was only six miles away from rapidly expanding Brighton, but far enough and picturesque enough to appeal to those looking for an ‘escape to the country’. Within no time at all, Neville had bought a considerable tract of land, for which he paid just £15 per acre, had set up a company to develop it, South Coast Land & Resort Company, and concocted a scheme to populate it.

Timing was everything for Neville’s plan. At this point, the Great War was raging, and men were being told that the defence of their country (specifically areas like the South Downs) was an important reason to volunteer. Much was also being made of the healing properties of the sea, countryside, and fresh air for injured and returning servicemen. So, Neville’s proposal to create a town, where working families and ex-servicemen could start a new life in a quiet, safe environment, was a good one. His plans to promote this peaceful refuge, this so-called ‘Garden City by the Sea’ were, however, less transparent; he devised a competition! This appeared in the Daily Express newspaper in January 1916 and asked readers to suggest a name for his planned new town. The competition rules said Neville would choose the winning name and whomever had submitted it would receive a free plot of beachfront land valued at £100. In addition, runners-up would receive free plots worth £50, but they would have to pay for the conveyancing. Neville’s company would then sell the new owners either a completed house or the materials with which to build one.

The competition was extremely popular and attracted some 80,000 entries, with the newspaper reporting ‘winners’ up and down Britain. In response to the high level of interest, and so as not to disappoint anyone, Neville, artfully, made thousands more ‘consolation’ prize plots available!

The winning name, as suggested by Mr West of Ilford and Mr Kemp of Maidstone, was New Anzac-on-Sea, in honour of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. Unsurprisingly, it was soon decided that this name wasn’t appropriate; the term ‘ANZAC’ having come to be viewed as sacrosanct after the events of the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign. To get around this and counter any negative feelings, Neville organised another competition. This time the winner was Ethel Radford, from Leicestershire, who suggested the name ‘Peacehaven’. (Later denied by Neville who claimed in his memoirs, published in the Peacehaven Post, that ‘Peacehaven’ was his suggested name.)

At some point during these events, it dawned on the Daily Express that something ‘fishy’ was going on and they sued Neville on the basis that his marketing ploy was fraudulent. The Express claimed that, as Neville was offering “free” plots of land as runner-up prizes, but issuing them only on the payment of a conveyancing fee, it was a scam! Neville put in a counterclaim for libel, but the High Court ruled against him. Unperturbed, the canny businessman saw an opportunity to capitalise on all the publicity generated by the legal case to kick start his new scheme – to simply sell plots of land for people to build on themselves. Proving there really is no such thing as bad publicity!

Then there was the small matter of the misrepresentation of the location. The competition described the land as ‘beachfront’, but those who travelled to Sussex to claim their plots immediately discovered things were not as they had imagined. The Birmingham Gazette summed up the situation by saying, “You could not get down to the beach, and if you did, there was no beach… The cliff was continually falling, and if you did get down to the seashore it was dangerous to remain there”.

Despite these irritating, minor points, it seems the cheap land, rural setting, sea air and promise of a simple lifestyle were still appealing. Maybe not as many ex-servicemen as Neville originally envisaged, but still a large number of people made the move. By 1924 the population of Peacehaven had reached 3,000. And, because there was no conventional planning system in place and few rules to follow, the new inhabitants found that dwellings could be built to almost any budget using whatever materials were available, including recycled army huts and redundant railway carriages.

Eventually, the local council invested in water and electrical services. Many of the original houses were replaced or upgraded to more substantial buildings and the element of ‘lawlessness’, that had prevailed in the early days, was eliminated leading to the Peacehaven we know today.

Life in the town is different now, but links to the First World War remain with three roads named to commemorate different aspects of the conflict: Anzac Close, Edith and Cavell Avenues. Surprising name choices perhaps, but then again perhaps not!

Posted in History on Nov 01, 2022